- guardian.co.uk, Monday 8 June 2009 14.17 BST
Gordon Brown will limp on like a "wounded elephant" unless Labour rebels can garner the necessary 70 signatures to force a leadership challenge today, insiders predicted as the party suffered its worst electoral result since the first world war.
In a devastating night for Labour, the party won just 15.8% of the popular vote, allowing the far right British National party to clinch its first two seats in the European parliament.
Worse than expected results for the prime minister saw Labour pushed into second place by the Tories in Wales for the first time since 1918, suffering its lowest vote in Scotland since before the first world war and humiliatingly finishing third to Ukip nationally.
As Brown put the finishing touches to his cabinet reshuffle with an announcement on the lower-ranking ministerial posts, he suffered a fresh setback when he was forced to sack Jane Kennedy, the minister of state for the environment, after she refused to sign a pledge of loyalty to the prime minister.
"In the end, I could have stayed if I had given that pledge of loyalty," Kennedy told Sky News.
There was few surprises in the middle-ranking posts confirmed by Downing Street with most keeping their current jobs, some with slightly added responsibilities.
During a night of unremitting gloom for Downing Street, the Tories pulled more than 10 points ahead of Labour, with Ukip in second place. The BNP secured its first significant wins in British politics when its leader, Nick Griffin, became an MEP in north-west England, and Andrew Brons, a former leader of the National Front, won in Yorkshire and Humber.
The major parties blamed each other for the drift to the far right reflected in results across the country.
Labour's drubbing will lead Brown to offer concessions to his backbenchers by promising to delay plans for the part-privatisation of the Royal Mail and to bring forward proposals for an inquiry into the basis for the Iraq war. The prime minister is battling to ensure a backbench rebellion does not spread to the left of the party, or to MPs in Labour heartlands where the party fared worst last night.
Rebel leaders will meet later today in advance of a pivotal meeting of the parliamentary party at 6pm tonight to analyse the highly varied result and decide if they have enough support to mount a challenge to Brown.
A leading Labour rebel, Barry Sheerman, said last night he was prepared to meet the challenge posed by the party's chief whip, Nick Brown, to put up or shut up.
Lord Falconer, the former lord chancellor and close friend of Tony Blair, called on Brown to go, saying: "I believe if we change leader then we can go into the next election, whenever it was, so much stronger."
However, Labour insiders believe that the real danger point for Brown may have passed unless the rebels can today muster the 70 signatures required to force a leadership challenge.
"He will limp on like a wounded elephant," a source said. "The party will not allow him to take us into the next general election but after last nights results we can't risk anything that would trigger a general election now."
Sheerman, the Labour chairman of the schools select committee, and the man who will challenge the party's high command by calling for a secret ballot on the leadership, described the results as "ghastly and a disaster".
The rebels want a minimum of 50 MPs to sign up to their cause before they go public with their names. Some want to appeal to the prime minister to stage a secret ballot on his leadership as way of establishing whether there is confidence in him.
Labour's European meltdown was amplified on a continental scale last night as the centre-left across the EU suffered defeats despite an economic climate from which it should profit. The most significant outcome was in Germany, the EU's biggest member country, where the Social Democrats (SPD) came in 17 points behind Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats and their Bavarian CSU ally.
In France, and Italy the centre-right also scored victories while Spain's socialist government lost to the conservatives.
European elections at-a-glance
• The Labour share of the vote was just 15.8% – down 7% on the equivalent European elections five years ago.In Cornwall, the party came sixth behind the Cornish Nationalist party. In south-east and south-west England, it came fifth behind the Greens.
• The Conservatives came first nationally with a vote of 27.7%, Ukip was second with a vote of 16.5%. Labour came third (15.8%) and the Liberal Democrats fourth (13.7%) as they did in 2005. Turnout was about 34%.
• The British National party hailed their triumphs in the north-west and Yorkshire and Humber. Brons said it was the first step for the UK getting freedom from the EU dictatorship.
• Tthe Tories won 25 seats, Ukip 13, Labour 13, the Lib Dems 11, and the Greens two.